Tunnels packed with drugs discovered in Venezuela prison sweep

A country where jails are criminal enterprises
Jimmy Pirela / AFP / Getty Images

A prison sweep in Venezuela has netted hundreds of guns and weapons, more than 22,000 rounds of ammunition, tunnels packed with cocaine and marijuana, and even a handful of grenades—the kind of hoard expected from a gang headquarters. Venezuela’s violent prisons are effectively that.

According to the non-governmental Venezuelan Prisons Observatory, 80 per cent of the country’s overcrowded jails are basically run as criminal enterprises, and officials are regularly bribed to traffic weapons and drugs. Incredibly, the sweep at Sabaneta prison near the western city of Maracaibo also turned up a different kind of contraband: a slew of animals spirited into the prison, including crocodiles, cows, macaws and raccoons.

Officials executed the search after recent riots between rival gangs left 16 inmates dead—some reportedly dismembered and decapitated. In Venezuela, mass deaths in custody are not uncommon: Riots at a different prison in January killed 58. The observatory says 591 inmates were killed in 2012. After the latest violence, Venezuela’s minister for penitentiary affairs—a role created just two years ago to deal with the prison crisis—promised the “weight of the law will fall heavily on those bandits found to be smuggling these items into jail.” The government has said it has a plan to take back control of the jails and deal more swiftly with cases to reduce the number of prisoners. It won’t be easy. Nearly 50,000 people are incarcerated in prisons that were built for closer to 16,000 inmates. And, for most of them, the government’s not in charge.